Ultima, page 4
‘So, I know you can get to her. Am I supposed to be impressed that you can fly a goon to England? Like I said, old news. I don’t care if you kill my mother, I really don’t.’
Da Silva made a small grunt of surprise. Italians have that sacred thing with la mamma. Even Raznatovic looked momentarily shocked.
‘So then, two things,’ I continued. ‘I’m assuming that the guy with the gun on the beach a few days ago was one of yours, Dejan? Because you wanted the money from the “item” that our friend here had mislaid? That’s why da Silva hid me away, out of your reach, until you could work things out?’
Raznatovic nodded slowly. I turned to da Silva.
‘And the guy in the yard? That would be the other dead one? He’s the one who organised the hit against you on the beach? So now you get to off him to prove to everyone in your gang that you two are best friends again? A “message”, you said? A gesture of faith in your renewed collective bargain?’
Both men were staring at me. Dejan made to speak but I waved it away dismissively, a gesture I had to say I enjoyed.
‘It’s beyond me why you lot feel the need for that kind of crap. All that omertà shit is really ageing, you know. Haven’t you got anything better to do? And the Big Brother routine with my mother? Whatever. Anyway, bad luck to the bloke in the boot. I think you both want a replacement for your “item”, yes? And you think I can sort it out for you?’
‘Ho detto che e brava,’ muttered da Silva. ‘I said she was good.’
‘That’s correct,’ put in Raznatovic. His tone had warmed up a bit.
‘So, yes. As I say, I don’t give a toss about my mother, but the answer is still yes. I’ll do what I can. But first, can we please stop all the nonsense? Let’s be more businesslike. Can we agree on that?’
I was hoping they were buying the bravado. If I could convince them I didn’t take them seriously I could play for time, discover what they needed. And then there might be a chance I could walk out of here on legs that still functioned. Acting the part was also quite useful in preventing the powerful urge to vomit currently fomenting under my revolting jacket. I knew just what both these men could do to me. So it was a relief to see that Dejan was smiling.
‘What did I tell you when you visited my home in Belgrade, Judith?’
‘That I was very brave. And also stupid.’
‘Quite. But I agree. We can dispense with the nonsense, as you call it.’
‘So, your solution? What is it?’
‘When you came to Belgrade, you offered to sell me an artwork? I suspect that it wasn’t genuine, that you had . . . manufactured it, yes?’
‘Well, I was just desperate to be introduced to you, you see.’
‘Do you think you can make another?’
The ‘artwork’ I had shown Dejan was no more than a few photos, a mash-up of a Venetian icon and some fairly foul contemporary pieces. It had never been real – serving as a ruse, no more. I hesitated.
‘I know about pictures. Quite a lot. But I can’t make them. I can’t paint.’
‘My colleague has people who can see to the execution.’
‘Please do not be flippant. You have already wasted a good deal of my time. Your job will be to invent the piece – the artist, the provenances. It will need to be impeccable. Impeccably valuable. Do you understand?’
‘So, do you think you can do this?’
‘Why me? Surely you two big shots have a whole team of bent dealers on the payroll?’
There was a pause. Then da Silva said quietly, ‘Actually, we don’t.’
Kazbich, Moncada, Fitzpatrick. All gone. I didn’t need him to explain. Basically, all the other candidates for the post were deceased.
‘So, when Mr Raznatovic and I had our little . . . misunderstanding, I thought of you. You have a legitimate gallery. You have proved you can spot a fake, you’re good at research. I’ve been watching you for a long time, remember? Without a . . . plausible dealer there is a gap that needs to be filled, quickly.’
I turned back to Raznatovic.
‘I’ll need time. Maybe quite a lot of time. I’ll need to research it, to speak to the people who will make it. But yes, if you can provide me with the resources.’
I looked at those lazily calm eyes again. For the first time since Kazbich had approached me and asked me to view Yermolov’s collection, I felt suddenly gleeful. After thinking I would never see a painting again, unless it was an illustration in the prison library, I was being asked to forge one all of my very own. A serious picture. Though why that should make me so excited I couldn’t quite see, immediately. As far as art was concerned at least, I had always been on the side of integrity. Hadn’t this whole business with da Silva started because back when I had worked as a junior at the House in London I had been on a righteous crusade to expose a fake? But the time I had spent trying to be Elisabeth Teerlinc had implanted a contempt in me for her world, for its posturing, its snobbery, its venality. I might love pictures, but I had no reason to love the people who sold them. And then – oh, and then . . . I might even have laughed out loud.
‘Let me get this clear,’ I continued, once I had suppressed my internal glee. ‘You,’ I jerked my head at da Silva, ‘or at least you and your “family” – do you still call it that? You owe him a fuck of a lot of money. So this picture needs to fetch – how much?’
‘One hundred,’ put in Dejan. He didn’t need to add the million.
‘So the person who should really be worried here isn’t me?’
‘You could say that.’
‘OK. So this is how it’s going to work. Yes,’ I repeated, ‘if you give me the resources, I can definitely do it. But not a private sale. That’s my condition. A public auction. And anything in excess of his debt, we split, fifty-fifty.’
‘You’re very confident.’
‘Indeed, gentlemen.’ I’d always wanted to say that. ‘And no more nonsense. We’re partners now. A collective, if you like. Done?’
Dejan paused. ‘Very well. Do you agree, Inspector?’
Da Silva nodded.
‘And if I fail, well, you can off us both together, can’t he, Romero?’
‘Smart choice. I’m sorry I can’t join you for lunch, but as I’m sure you understand, I have to get back to Belgrade. Since you agree, the inspector can introduce you to your assistant. We will provide everything you need.’
‘There’s one more thing. Something in my old flat, in Venice. It needs to be tidied up. Da Silva here can take care of it, I’m sure, but I want it done.’
Da Silva shrugged. ‘Not a problem.’
Dejan was getting to his feet. His head almost reached the ceiling.
‘Wait. What’s your budget?’
‘Budget?’ I appreciated his aristocratic air of surprise. ‘Whatever you require, of course. I’ll be most interested to see what you produce.’
The conversation was clearly over. Da Silva ushered me briskly from the room, the track pants flapping over my dreadful loafers. Perhaps we could also swiftly dispense with my outfit, now that we were going into business together? I was distracted from that thought by the slam of the bedroom door. I may have felt a teeny pang that Dejan hadn’t bothered to say goodbye.
Da Silva escorted me back to the dining room. The anxious man had laid out salad, bread and a plate of wizened, spiteful-looking sausages. I constructed yet another sandwich and munched it down.
‘I hope there’s pudding? The catering in that hole you had me in wasn’t up to much, you know.’
Da Silva was eating more delicately, peeling a slice of cucumber.
‘You meant that about your mother?’
‘Why do you ask? Because if you know I’m an emotionless psycho you look less of a tit?’
Da Silva massaged the bridge of his nose. It was a nice nose.
‘Do you always talk so much? Look, how can I expla
‘A show of strength, then, all the dramatics?’
‘Not a word most people would have chosen. Mr Raznatovic’s men work frequently between Albania and Italy. One of them got a little enthusiastic when he heard of our recent misunderstanding. We agreed it was important that he should be made an example of somewhere his colleagues would be . . . clear about it. Also, Albania was convenient for Mr Raznatovic to see you, in person. He was quite clear about that.’
‘Fair enough.’ I speared a pallid tomato.
‘So . . . your mother?’
‘Did you study Dante at school? You must have done, you’re Italian.’
‘I’m not really into poetry.’
‘In the Inferno, Dante reserves the ninth circle of hell for treachery. There’s a kind of VIP area for people who betray love and trust.’
Da Silva was giving me the same look as when I had started banging on about helicopters.
‘Your mother betrayed you?’ he asked slowly.
How could I even begin to tell anyone about my mother? Least of all da Silva? ‘Never mind. My mother’s a drunk. She never cared about me, never looked after me. What do I owe her?’
‘I’m . . . sorry.’
‘No, you’re not. Anyway, don’t we have work to do? And I’m far more interested in you telling me what the actual fuck has been going on than in talking about my mother.’
‘You’ll know what you need to know.’
‘Uh-uh. We’re a team now, remember? Your mate Dejan says so, and he’s the boss, it seems.’
The idea I’d had – I might even have gone so far as to call it an inspiration – was fizzing inside me so brightly that this latest surreality hardly registered.
‘I think I’d like a cigarette now.’
Like all sophisticated pleasures, the first taste made me sick, but after that every drag was ecstatic.
‘So, Romero, what’s next? When do I start?’
‘You said you wanted to see the person who can make it?’
‘Ready and waiting.’
‘So – we’re going back to Calabria.’
I’d thought I didn’t believe in fate, but da Silva and I obviously had some karmic number going on. So many bodies, so many ghosts. We were beginning to seem like the last men standing, so perhaps we might as well be friends.
My new quarters were a considerable improvement on the shed. The honeymoon suite at the Grand Hotel President di Siderno, no less. By the time we arrived late that evening, da Silva’s elves had already been busy. As well as the small bag I had packed in Venice when I had thought I was going to be doing time, there was a collection of my things from the apartment in Campo Santa Margherita, including my laptop and phones, jewellery, clothes, underwear, toiletries, running gear, all my art books. I was pleased to note that they had resisted the temptation to include any pieces of Alvin.
‘You’ll be comfortable in here? I’ll be just next door while you’re working.’
‘I wasn’t planning to start tonight. I’m a bit tired, what with the death threats and everything.’
‘I mean, I’ll be staying here while you prepare.’
‘The whole time?’ I asked disbelievingly. ‘But what about Christmas? Won’t Franci and the kids miss you? Giovanni and Giulia will be devastated if Papa isn’t home. And work – what about the day job?’
Da Silva was flicking idly through the illustrations of a biography of Soutine.
‘What? Oh no. Sick leave. I was unfortunately shot in the leg last week. Injured in the line of duty.’
‘Seriously? You can get away with that rubbish?’
He looked at me pityingly. ‘You really don’t know anything, do you?’
‘And your wife?’
‘She understands. Better still, she’s not always asking questions, unlike some people. I’ll leave you to settle in. But I’ll be taking these.’
He held up a brown envelope. My passports – the original in the name of Judith Lauren Rashleigh and the two fakes I had bought a year apart from a ‘cobbler’ – a fixer in Amsterdam who faked documents. Elisabeth Teerlinc and Katherine Olivia Gable. My sister’s names – our mother adored classic Hollywood films.
‘That’s really not necessary. Where do you imagine I’m going to go?’
‘Why do you imagine I’d trust you?’
‘Trust is what you do when you don’t have a better alternative.’
‘We say the last resort.’
‘I’m taking them. If you want anything, food – order whatever you want.’
‘Have you got any fags?’
He handed me his own half-finished pack.
‘Thanks. I suppose. I’m dying for a bath.’
Da Silva gave me a funny look as he closed the door.
Locking it behind him, I turned on the taps in the marble tub, pouring every bottle of complimentary foam and shampoo into the steaming water. While I waited for it to fill, I started checking my computer. My bank accounts in Panama and Switzerland were all in order, I was still relatively rich, and aside from a (disappointingly few) queries from bewildered clients asking about the abrupt closure of Gentileschi, I had four messages. Steve, Carlotta and Dave, the three people who were the nearest thing I had to friends. Another from Pavel Yermolov. I tapped Yermolov’s first.
Judith. Please contact me. Just to let me know all is well. Everything fine here, as arranged.
Yermolov was a bit late with that announcement. Fine didn’t quite cover it. When he’d assured me he would take care of Kazbich it had never occurred to me that I might have to take his place. Sort of touching, though, that Yermolov should sound so concerned. We had shared a few days of decent sex and world-class-spectacular pictures, but I hadn’t fooled myself that it meant anything, though I admit I have low standards in that department. On the whole, the less I know about my lovers the better. Their names, for instance.
Carlotta’s message was typically brief: two baby emojis and a thumbs-up sign. I smiled. After hooking her elderly but extremely high net worth husband, Carlotta’s next scheme had been to get pregnant, ideally with twins. Carlotta was an impressive example of getting what you wanted, if what you wanted was to cash the cheque after the wedding. I couldn’t envy her, but I was glad for her.
Dave’s message was also brief.
Hope all OK. Great news about my book! Can’t wait to tell you – drop me a line. Love, D. xxx
I felt bad about that one. Dave had worked as a porter at the House in London, back when I had been a junior in British Pictures, but his earlier experiences in the army had proved pretty useful. That and his capacity for not interfering, just like da Silva’s wife. He’d helped me in all sorts of ways he didn’t know and would certainly never wish to know. When I had last seen him, he had explained that he had written a book on his experiences of art as trauma therapy for soldiers. I’d finished most of it, but being arrested and kidnapped had distracted me from the final chapters. His shy enthusiasm and his genuine, passionate love for pictures deserved better. With a pang I remembered our conversations over snatched cigarettes in the yard beneath the House where the works were brought in. I doubted he’d think much of what I was involved in now.
Steve, or rather Steve’s latest assistant, informed me that his boat, the Mandarin, would be in the Caribbean for New Year, and would I care to join? I replied regretfully in the negative.
Unsurprisingly, there was nothing from my mother. Still, tomorrow was Christmas Eve. She’d probably be in touch.
The hot bath and two orders of tagliatelle with prawns and vodka followed by fruit salad and tiramisu
Running next morning felt wonderful after the days of confinement. Looping down from the hotel I made for the front, pushing myself into a sprint every hundred metres, feeling the stretch and twang as my muscles opened. I wasn’t surprised to meet da Silva on my return, bundled up in a heavy hooded sweatshirt, though it really wasn’t that cold. He was doing push-ups off a low wall, swapping his hands alternately behind his back.
‘Bravo! Fancy a coffee?’
Da Silva peered up at me from under his shoulder. My own workout gear was a considerable improvement on the sweatpants and I daresay the sea air had brought a becoming flush to my cheeks.
‘Sure,’ he answered, straightening up. We walked into the lobby together, the clerk at the desk giving da Silva a respectful nod. Apart from an elderly couple in wheelchairs who had been parked at the breakfast table by a dreamy-eyed Filipino nurse, we appeared to be the only residents over the festive season.
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